Archive | February, 2013

Religion, by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo

24 Feb

Derrida was responsible for the topic of discussion in this book, which is part of a series called Cultural Memory in the Present. The book is made up of essays, by various different thinkers, on the title subject.

In the opening essay, Derrida gives us a series of aphorisms relating to the title subject that then interweave until they seemingly bunch up in knots, at which point Derrida tries to find his way back out again. Leaving no stone unturned, Derrida’s long essay is just as careful to include everything as some less dangerous, more PC intellectual would be careful not to include certain elements. Here we have him weighing, considering and dissecting everything from televangelism to Islamic fundamentalism to the papacy, scripture and beyond.

Derrida seems to think that it is inevitable that we return to the subject of Christianity when talking about the west’s relationship with religion, rather than making a generalization that dialectically neutralizes the three big monotheistic faiths. As he notes the word ‘religion’ itself is Latin, which means little outside of the historical context of Christianity, and it is through this context that the west, whether it be through the eyes of secularism within religion or religion within the secularism, that we must look (the west having already found itself thrown into this contingency, to express it in Heideggerian terms).

Whether or not it is certain that we ‘must’ look at religion in this specific Latin context, one of ‘globalatinization’ as he puts it, it provides Derrida a point of focus to discuss the matter in such a way that he always has a point of departure and return with the subject, in order to provide structure to what is, really, a series of loose (if lucid) connections and approximations. This is hardly a crime (though his detractors have criminalized Derrida for this very method of thinking), nor is it an incredibly insightful thing for me to say about the text. Even ideas that started as a ‘deconstruction’ end up having some kind of architecture.

Though rigorous in thought, Derrida’s essay provides a pretty large context and maze-like way of wading through the subject. Or, perhaps, due to its aphoristic nature, it is like a big house in which each thought is a different room. By the time one has finished browsing, admiring this and that room, one steps out of the house and looks back on it as a whole.

Derrida’s varied way of tackling the subject is an interesting pair with the next essay by Gianni Vattimo, entitled ‘The Trace of the Trace.’ Vattimo is unapologetically hard to pin down (not that Derrida isn’t—he’s pretty much made a career out of it). To pair them in strictly binary terms, one could say that Derrida represents the ‘secular view’ while Vattimo represents (interprets) the ‘religious view.’ As a Catholic (of some sort), Vattimo centers his essay on the return of religion in the modern world.

Vattimo’s career, over the past decade or so, has taken a strong thematic turn. In the works of his early career, he offered both a means of interpreting and a series of interpretations, often coinciding with the explanation of his interpretation imbedded within the interpretation itself. It seemed that the ‘results’ (we’ll call them for now) of this incredibly nuanced way of doing philosophy upset people more than the actual method. Perhaps this is why the latter half of Vattimo’s career seems to be an apologetic for his own brand of hermeneutic philosophy that has been referred to for a while now as ‘Pensiero Debole’—‘Weak Thought.’

On the outset, one would probably be tempted to say that Weak Thought (which ironically relies on a series of strong postulations in order to arrive at its ‘weak’-ness) is Vattimo taking Heidegger far too seriously as it concerns his preoccupation with retrieving Being and ‘leaving metaphysics to itself,’ while likewise taking Nietzsche far too seriously as it concerns his preoccupation with destructive nihilism verses constructive nihilism. By the way that Vattimo has routinely interpreted both thinkers, one would be tempted to think that Vattimo sees his ‘Weak Thought’ as a way of surpassing metaphysics while at once ‘retrieving Being’ and also superseding destructive nihilism with constructive nihilism.

If one were to read only the writings of the later stages of his career, one would probably ask, ‘Why this method? Why this conclusion?’ which brings us back to the initial interpretation. Like I said before, Vattimo’s method and resulting interpretations often have such a relationship that one doesn’t quite know where one ends and the other begins. One always gets the sense that Vattimo is being playful, but he’s sure not going to tell us which aspect of his thought is play, just as one would gather that some of the qualifying interpretations of certain ideas were developed after he found the result he wanted, as is the case with some of the ways he talks about religion.

However, this essay suggests differently. As Vattimo tries to map out a few possible thoughts on the return of religion in the modern world, he stays close to a serious investment of Heideggerian views on Being, which means that the ‘event-like-nature’ of Being, if we play fair, would have to pan out along one line of events, since to suggest that two separate lines of event—one in which religion reveals the nature of Being through itself and the other in which reflection on the phenomena surrounding religion as a historical mistake using the faculties of ‘Reason’ (unavailable through the previous epic of Being) gives us an ‘accurate’ picture of ‘how the world really is’—becomes contradictory and untenable.

Thus, according to Vattimo, we are no longer in a place where we can rightly dismiss or explain the ‘return’ of religion through convenient essentialist trappings—i.e.: psychology cannot ‘explain away’ the religious sentiment by saying that it is ‘merely’ a manifestation of people’s need to cope with fear, despair and impending cultural violence, but rather, that this means of coping is precisely one of many features of religion expressing itself through the nature of Being, thus legitimizing it on an existential level while giving room for the truth of its claims to enter dialogue with the world.

This is where Vattimo’s ‘Weak Thought’ as a form of constructive nihilism comes in. Though they arrive at it in different ways, Richard Rorty’s brand of ‘Neo-pragmatism’ and Vattimo’s ‘Weak Thought’ are similar in nature, and both thinkers have in the past subscribed to one another’s title. A vulgar reduction of both methods of thinking could be summed up in a statement that Rorty said of his own attitude, which was, ‘The only truth is the truth that’s best for you and me.’ In other words, the weakness of ‘Weak thought’ and the pragmatism of ‘Neo-pragmatism’ amounts to a dialogue, an attitude of friendliness in some achievable end.

Vattimo takes it a lot farther by saying that this attitude of ‘friendliness’ is precisely the attitude and center of Christianity. While much of the discourse in his philosophy returns to ‘the end of metaphysics,’ Vattimo suggests that Christianity, as a tradition, offers a form of transcendent dialogue that has a definite role in that end. The ‘strong’ systems of thought responsible for archaic religions, and even of modern ideologies, resemble the very strong system which collapsed in light of the doctrine of the incarnation. Vattimo could be seen as critical of post-Enlightenment thought by suggesting that the nature of religion digs itself into the marrow of the culture and always informs it, even if it appears to ‘go away’ for a while, its reemergence and dissipation both being aspects of the history of Being, and therefore, inseparable from any other knowledge of Being.

Rene Girard accused Vattimo’s treatment of philosophy as a kind of ‘game,’ which is not entirely groundless. Vattimo’s ‘weak thought’ is, among other things, a means of entertaining a possibility, an imaginative way of conversing. The next half dozen or so essays in the book could all be said to follow this same style of thinking though taking a different route and arriving at different results. In the same way that Vattimo adds some perspective to Heidegger, others bring us back to Kant, to Hegel, to Aristotle, to the original Judaic texts, all to entertain a series of possibilities and new ways of thinking about traditional ideas.

The book is concluded with an endearing essay by Hans-Georg Gadamer, who has been famously open to healthy dialogue with religion, probably as a means of maintaining ethical solidarity between radically different groups in a world in crisis. Gadamer’s speculative ‘solutions’ coupled with Derrida’s more ominous predictions open and close a much bigger conversation that ends up being as friendly as it is rewarding to discover.


Conversations with James Joyce — A Review

16 Feb

The foreword to this edition of the book is determined to, at once, paint its author as a genius worthy of Joyce’s friendship and to divulge to us the most sensational instances of their meeting before we even get a chance to read about it ourselves.

Forgiving the clumsy beginning, we’re then introduced to a token of this particular genre whose most remarkable predecessor—and, surely, a direct model was Conversations with Goethe. Like Eckermann’s Goethe book, Arthur Power’s book is autobiographical in structure but slight on the ‘auto’ at just the instant when the star-artist arrives on the scene of our narrator’s life. At this point, minimal narration segues into a lot of lit-talk.

Though the forward by David Norris suggests that Mr. Powers is humbly portraying a younger, bohemian, ‘romantically-inclined’ version of himself in the shadow of a great genius, one can’t help but think that perhaps Mr. Powers thought, in fact, that he was the one best equipped to match wits with the great Joyce. After all, we’re only warned in the beginning by Powers, ‘My point of view has changed and coincides more with his, but such was it then, and as such I have left it.’ As close to Joyce’s mind as Powers’ mind might have become later, Powers never gives the reader any direct indication that he later disavowed his hatred of Ulysses. He preferred Joyce’s previous works which he thought were more ‘romantic’: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s frequent defenses give us some of the most personal insights into the heart of one of the most important books of the twentieth century. Of the work of his latter period, he says,

The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. In Ulysses I tried to express the multiple variations which make up the social life of a city—its degradations and its exaltations. In other words, what we want to avoid is the classical, with its rigid structure and its emotional limitations. The mediaeval, in my opinion, had greater emotional fecundity than classicism, which is the art of the gentleman, and is now as out-of-date as gentlemen are, classicism in which the scents are only sweet, but I have preferred other smells.

And we get plenty of other smells. Not many other novels before or after Ulysses feature a prominent scene with its main character on the john.

Arthur’s experiences with Joyce are set almost entirely in his living room. Much of Joyce’s lifestyle is hardly surprising to read about. He hated all things bohemian. He didn’t like to go to parties and he didn’t feel comfortable around people.

His wit and black humor are reserved for one-on-one conversations (specifically with Powers in this case) as in one instant where Joyce tells the story of a late acquaintance. He was a fellow Irishman named Tuohy, who became jealous and antagonistic when Joyce became an international celebrity. He once annoyed Joyce by mock-clapping when he entered a room. When Joyce learned that Tuohy had committed suicide in America, Power’s tells us that Joyce ‘showed no emotion.’

—I am not surprised, he said. He nearly made me want to commit suicide too.

Unlike Conversations with Goethe, which is made up of warm, congenial insights into many subjects between friends, Conversations with James Joyce is made up almost entirely of literary arguments. It is impressive that Powers was able to honestly capture (to the best of his memory) the biting, sarcastic quips that Joyce reserved for the former’s favorite writers.

After pages of Joyce tearing apart the beloveds of western literature, it is refreshing to hear how much he appreciates Proust. In this book, however, Joyce’s appreciation of an artist is often traded for Power’s dislike of the same. ‘You should give him more patience,’ he tells Powers, ‘…certainly no one has taken modern psychology so far, or to such a fine point.’

When Powers asks if Joyce is interested in Dostoyevsky, he replies, ‘Of course.’ Dostoyevsky, in fact, earns a brief but high place of praise in this book, probably higher than most other names mentioned.

He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence.

The book ends abruptly on an unfortunate and sad, yet totally puzzling note—a rift in their friendship. What’s puzzling about this rift is that it is not only vague—having grown in the soil of Joyce’s ‘ill humour’ which came about one night over a meal—but that seems to rest almost entirely on a gross misinterpretation of a statement that Joyce made to lighten the mood.

When Joyce tells Powers about the birth of his grandson, Powers, ‘not being a family man who dotes on children,’ and who was ‘feeling very bitter at that time about the world in general,’ replies to Joyce with a passive, inconsiderate, ‘Is that all?’ When Joyce replies, heatedly, with, ‘It is the most important thing there is,’ Powers, rather than taking it to mean that family is incredibly important to Joyce, speculates to himself,

‘the most important thing there is’ meant that another Joyce had been born into the world. Even to this day, I am still in doubt, for Joyce’s estimation of merit would on occasion suddenly flare up to a point of madness.

‘I cannot see what’s so important,’ Powers replies shamelessly. ‘It is something which happens to everyone, everywhere, all the time.’

The fact that Powers qualifies this callous statement by mentioning his not being a family man, by his irritation at Joyce’s alleged self-perception, and also by his unspoken agreement with Beckett of the world that ‘It had gone on long enough,’ leads one to assume that, inevitably, Powers was of the mind that his own position and attitude was justified. What would seem to be his apparent inability to read the situation years later, or at least, to see how it would appear to the common reader on paper, is comical.

The personal comedy gives way to sadness, however, as Powers rushes through their subsequent, brief meetings before Joyce’s death, which he hears about over the telephone. Thus, the book concludes,

It had not ended, but had lessened as so many friendships lessen when distance puts its cold hand between them, damped as they are by circumstances and time, and by differences of personality. A personality can fuse with another personality for a time, but when that time is over we gradually re-enter the Solitude of ourselves. Then all that remains is the memory of the fire which once warmed us both, and it is fragments of that memory which I have tried to reconstruct.

This memory reconstruction, this fragment is, this already brief friendship is the closest thing we have to discovering Joyce the man. But such is surely as Joyce would have preferred it: that he left behind, not traces of his life, but only his work.

Chomsky – Foucault Debate On Human Nature — A Review

9 Feb

Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault are described in this book by Fons Elders as ‘tunnellers through a mountain working at opposite sides of the same mountain with different tools, without even knowing if they are working in each other’s direction.’ Human Nature: Justice vs. Power is the title of the debate, which originally aired on Dutch television in 1971.

The title is taken from the stance that both men arrived at (or continued to entertain) into in the late stages of their careers. To reduce it to its simplest explanation—a job that the title of the book has already prepared us for—, Chomsky tends to think that some sense of justice is responsible for human nature while Foucault tends to think that programs of power play more into human behavior. One might be tempted to pin the whole occasion down to a manifestation of an ongoing war between foundationalism and hermeneutics, Chomsky being a likely tie to the former and Foucault a likely tie to the latter.

However, nothing between these two thinkers is ever quite that simple. As Chomsky continues on insisting that certain attributes of human language and creativity stem from fundamental biological properties, we start to gather that this insistence has more to do with a scientific need to push forward with a theory in order to see if it stands or falls in some provided context. This also gives Chomsky a chance to remain optimistic about the nature of man by postulating that some notion of justice or, at least, a notion of ‘better justice’ is what drives human nature—which is probably a means of remaining optimistic about the future of man.

This also gives him the opportunity to remain fairly constant through both subjects—creativity and politics. On the subject of creativity, Foucault seems to disagree with him very little or only in small ways, while remaining suspicious of the inherent logical movement of Chomsky’s assumptions. They split on Descartes and the mind, and the nuance of this split is representative of the paradigmic relationship that these two thinkers have with the subject matter.

The subject of politics is where Foucault is at his most rigorous. When asked why he is interested in politics, the most basic answer he can provide is that it would be far stranger for someone not to be interested in politics, at which point it would be justifiable to ask, ‘Well, damit, why the hell not?’ A self proclaimed ‘Nietzschean,’ Foucault’s specialty is in the genealogies and pedigrees of certain ideas and assumptions. Through socio-linguistic turns, through the intellectual extracts of different sets of phenomena and the inter-subjective dialogue possible between them through different texts, Foucault made a career out of constantly trying to step outside of the historical contexts in which we’re thrown and creating brand new narratives in such a way that they would read as though they were things hidden since the beginning of man.

The most fundamental disagreement happens late into the debate, in the political section, in which Foucault postulates, not without hesitation as though trying to avoid an impolite subject, that the notion of ‘justice’ was created and then perpetuated by the oppressed class as a justification for a certain kind of economic and political power. Chomsky defends justice as being sought as a network of basic human needs like love, decency, kindness and sympathy, whereas Foucault’s view of justice, Chomsky claims, is very specific to only certain political situations and doesn’t take into account instances like two countries going to war—One is left to choose one side, which reduces the objective to a level of basic human needs and the mutual striving of the citizens to achieve it for one another as well as themselves.

Often, Foucault, eager to escape essentialist trappings, always comes back to the subject of power as a means to clarify certain issues, though he does seem to rest there much the way Nietzsche did. However Foucault does deserve credit for defining Power along more complex lines than the Nietzschean idea of power as ‘the sensation of having overcome,’ or the force by which every set of phenomena can be reduced—‘will to power.’ Foucault takes it further by saying that power is not simply a way of measuring the ways in which the strong constrain the weak but that it can also be manifested through one culture’s influence of educational tools and medical practices. This turns Foucault around from what some have been tempted to call a pessimistic reading in favor of a liberal project that coincides with that of Chomsky’s—to work on a more livable world for all.

The debate only takes up about a third of the book. It’s followed up by another great interview with Chomsky alone, in which he discusses American policy, Vietnam, McCarthyism, the crimes of the FBI and the climate of counter culture and how various revolutions developed. There’s one long and one short essay by Foucault and in them, he sets out on a mission to map, with vague hope, a better political future while on the other hand deconstructing basic terms and ideas like ‘justice,’ ‘man of justice,’ ‘shepherd,’ and ‘lawgiver.’

Though no real conclusion is reached between them (as one might expect), it is an interesting look at a very important project for humanity, even if the means to get there are a bit hazy.

How to Beg With Style in 2013

2 Feb

This is for all of you out there who are falling on hard times and see no reasonable way out of the situation but to collect spare change from strangers. You may have arrived at this point for a number of reasons. Perhaps you got laid off or fired. Perhaps you got kicked out of the house and your spouse legally owned everything you had. Perhaps you’ve been this way for a very long time and don’t know anything else. Maybe you can find plenty to eat but you just really need booze or drugs. Maybe you’d just rather stand with a sign in your hand earning $1.50 an hour than you would with a burger-spatula earning $8.25 an hour. Whatever the case may be, today I’m going to teach you how to beg properly in today’s competitive market.

Remember, this is only for people who have some kind of need. Trust me, you don’t want to be that guy who was seen begging all day on the corner in crummy clothes only to go the parking lot around the corner and hop into a luxury sports vehicle.

There are a few things you’ll need:

1) Somewhere to Store Your Money
This is pretty simple. You can dream big all you want and expect to get a pocket-full of ten dollar bills that you can fold up neatly but chances are you’re going to get more heavy change than anything. At this point, you’ll want to make sure you have something better than a flimsy pocket to carry your change in. After all, if the change doesn’t amount to much, you don’t want to ruin a good pair of pants for what only amounts to a few dollars.

Some people have buckets. This is good because it’s non-aggressive yet sends a very strong message. This way, you may increase traffic by attracting timid people who wouldn’t normally approach you and put money in your hand. I’ve seen some people even set out hand-made pottery to hold their change. That way, people see that you’re creative. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t actually make the pottery yourself—you don’t have to even tell them that. At worst, it just tells people that you have good taste. Let’s face it: pottery is ten times better looking than a used coleslaw container or an aluminum chew-bucket.

2) A Good Attitude
This is so basic but you’d be surprised how many street people forget this. Face the facts: you’re going to have to deal with a LOT of rejection. Some people are nice about it and some aren’t so nice. If they’re rude, let them pass. You don’t want their money anyway.

If you get some kids trying to screw with you because they’re completely disaffected or because their parents have paid for everything in their life, walk away. You don’t want to get into a dodgy situation and they’re actually stealing time from you that you could be using to make some cash.

When people say “no,” don’t take it personally. One thing I’ve often encountered when responding to street people is that many of them simply don’t believe that I don’t have cash on me. Sadly, that’s today’s world. Debit cards have been around for years now and some people go weeks, even months, without so much as seeing Abraham Lincoln’s pale, green face. In fact, street people probably see more actual money than the rest of us.

If someone can’t/won’t give you cash, no matter their demeanor or phrasing, that is NOT the time to threaten violence. That is not the time to demand that they go to an ATM to pull out a 20 dollar bill if they don’t have the 10 cents you initially asked for. It is not the time to finger-check someone on the chest or forehead, nor is it the time to breathe in their face. All of these actions scream out “meth head.” Maybe that’s what you are, but you don’t want to ruin your chances, do you? Consistency in attitude will go a long way over time, and don’t take for granted that a lot of people do remember you. I know it’s called “begging,” but there are limits.

3) A Good Begging Spot
Study the area around you. There are some very simple things street people miss and here’s a common one—Here in America, you’re allowed to turn right on a red light if there is no traffic coming. Don’t stand at the right-hand side of a street at the end of an intersection because all those cars are doing is checking the street they’re turning onto for oncoming traffic. Either they won’t look at you at all or you’ll distract them and cause a wreck. If you have to beg at an intersection, go to the left-hand side where they can’t turn, but even that is difficult because it’s hard for them to reach you and it’s unlikely that they’re going to call you over to their car for a quarter.

The outside of parks are always nice. People are out relaxing and some feel more generous in these moods.

Medians or islands with slow-traffic are good for a few hours of the day, and you might make quite a bit with a good sign (more on that below), but you’ll have to do some planning and figure out those traffic patterns. There is also a higher chance that you’ll be chased away by cops.

Other good areas are outside of food joints. Just make sure you don’t stand too close to the entrance. If you’re in a place where there’s lots of food, people will subconsciously assume that you just need food. Hey, there are lots of people that will even buy you a meal for the night. And here’s where attitude comes in again: if you ask nicely for someone to buy you a meal, eventually, someone will. Bus and train stations almost seem cliché at this point, but why get rid of a good thing? As long as you’re not aggressive, at a bus-station, people will presuppose that you need the money for something that they can immediately relate to.

4) A Good Sign
You don’t need anything flashy, surreal or strange—It’s not a high-school car wash. But on the other hand, many street people don’t make their signs very visible. Brown cardboard and small, sharpie-written lettering with a novel-length text on it is just going to confuse people as they cruise by you at 25 miles an hour. Get something big and white. Write in big, bold letters. Look at how big the letters are on street signs and think about how close you’ll be standing to the cars in order to gage how big to make your letters. You might think that a more pathetic sign will make people feel sorry for you, but cardboard just isn’t readable. The writing will confuse the eye. The only time brown and black go together is on a chocolate bar. It won’t hurt you to invest in a good board, piece of paper or even a stick-sign. People won’t assume that you’re too rich to beg just because you found something white to write on.

If you need visual tips or research, there are all kinds of tools and pictures on the internet. Don’t have a computer? Libraries do and it’s free! However, lots of them do require you to have a library account, which is usually set up with a piece of mail to your house. Don’t have a house? Don’t worry. Maybe you can have mail sent to someone else’s house. In case you haven’t figured it out, the library is not exactly the IRS; they’re not gonna audit you over something like that.

5) A Good Story
When I say the word “good,” I DON’T mean “elaborate.” Think of a “good” story in terms of a “good” resume. What’s a good resume look like? It’s not bloated with details and it’s not four pages long. It’s two, maybe three pages long. Think of your story as your resume. It can be quite simple. People tend to prefer the story where they have just arrived at some trouble and just need one thing for the night. This is the classic story and it may not win trust, but it’s probably the more honest approach.

Don’t load it with too much tragedy or no one will take you seriously. Anything too elaborate reeks of “conman.” And for goodness sakes, don’t make up an unbelievable number of children in your care—If people don’t see the children they’re not going to believe you. Don’t come off as the representative of some made-up-sounding organization who is also sort of begging. Don’t go making up organizations if you aren’t prepared to create paperwork for tax write-offs on your nonexistent computer and printer.

Make sure your story is appropriate to your situation. If you plan on doing the same thing in the same spot on a daily basis, don’t keep telling people you just need money to get on a bus and into a hostel on the other side of town. People aren’t stupid. They’re going to know you just want a set amount of money every day and that you’re lying to get it. Even if your intentions are harmless, it’s a known fact that people don’t trust liars. Sometimes your story can simply be that you’re hungry and that you don’t have money.

With a good story, you’re not selling people entertainment but sympathy. Sympathy isn’t about the volume of tragedy involved in your story, but the relate-ability. We’ve all had our cars break down at some point or (for those of you born before 1990) we all needed to use a payphone at some point. We can remember what it’s like to be in need. If you’re begging, just remember that a little simplicity goes a long way.

6) Perseverance
Finally, perseverance. Like I said before, you’re going to get a lot of rejection. Just realize that it’s part of the job. No one feels they owe you anything, and at the end of the day, they don’t, really. A sense of entitlement won’t get you far. In some people’s minds, they don’t understand why you can’t just get a job. If you really resent rejection or feel that people owe you something, at that point, you may want to think about looking for real work. That way the people you work for actually do owe you something and you don’t have to wonder at the end of the day whether you’ll have enough for that burger or bottle of vodka. But for those of you willing to go the distance, perseverance is necessary. It’s important to learn because you’ll need it anywhere you go in life anyway. Not only will you need it while begging, but you’ll probably need it more.

I hope all of this helped. Happy begging in 2013! I hope to see some smiles out there on the streets and lots of shiny coins in the buckets.